As pharmaceutical companies face hundreds of lawsuits over their role in the U.S. opioid epidemic, new research suggests a link between their marketing practices and overdose-related deaths.
U.S. counties where doctors received high volumes of opioid marketing saw more prescriptions and, in turn, more overdose deaths, according to a study funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published by the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center. Almost $40 million was spent on opioid marketing — including speaking fees, travel costs and lunches — that was distributed to 67,507 U.S. physicians between August 2013 and December 2015.
But those marketing dollars, which averaged about $600 per physician, weren’t distributed equally, leaving some counties more vulnerable than others, the study found.
“Areas in this country hardest hit by the prescription opioid crisis were the same areas targeted by drug companies marketing opioids,” said Scott Hadland, a pediatrician and researcher at the Grayken Center who was the lead author of the study.
Cabell County, West Virginia, for example, received 32 times more dollars in prescription opioid marketing than the national average. Opioid manufacturers spent $11,676 on marketing per every thousand residents living in the region at the foothills of the Appalachians.
That money had an impact, Hadland said. Cabell County saw the most prescription opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. during the months surveyed.
Across the state line, doctors in Salem City and Winchester City, Virginia, experienced the most frequent marketing interactions. Frequency of marketing had a stronger correlation to prescription opioid overdose deaths than the amount spent, the study found.
“These small, frequent interactions are really the potential driver of this public health crisis — and yet it’s legal,” Hadland said. “There needs to be tighter regulation.”